What Is Really Happening When We Feel Authentic?
Unsettling research suggests authenticity isn't what we think.
Posted Dec 31, 2018
"Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity." —Coco Chanel
If Chanel is right, we are jonesing for authenticity now more than we have in a while. Why would it be that adversity and unhappiness make us yearn for authenticity? Our culture, American culture in particular, places such a high value on authenticity, possibly because we idealize honesty and truth (“Truth, justice, and the American way”) almost to the point of fetish. As our cherished national beliefs are challenged by the events of the times, each new revelation means that America's claim to the high road is getting weaker and weaker.
For many of us, it's harder than ever to believe in those ideals, perhaps strengthening the resolve to reestablish them — while also engendering potentially dangerous cynicism. For others, we feel like the needed day of reckoning is finally arriving under our current leadership, a long-needed breath of fresh air.
The importance of being authentic
Even in the absence of the current crisis facing the national psyche, American individualism demands that each and every person fully actualize, express unique characteristics and talents, and fully live according to one’s inviolable values, true to oneself. In this light, self-actualization takes on a near-sacred quality, representing the pinnacle of a life well lived. According to research, however, self-actualization is primarily about status and success, predominantly in professional circles and in caring for one’s kin — far more mundane than a heroic journey of self-discovery — though spirituality itself can be a potent status-marker among homo sapiens.
Case in point, the current interest in "authentic leadership," as trust and honesty demand a premium valuation in the contemporary corporate environment. Personal and commercial spheres colliding and becoming inextricably entangled in first-world countries, as big data and machine learning allows our personal habits on the internet to guide marketing efforts. Authenticity sells, but only top-grade, 100-percent genuine authenticity — and business gurus are making the connection. For some, authenticity comes naturally, while for others, it requires practice and training. Authenticity is high status.
What are we really rushing toward in embracing authenticity?
When we experience ourselves as being authentic, what does it mean? Generally, we take the felt experience of authenticity to mean we are living in accord with who we really are, without deception or conceit, attuned to and living in the moment. Authenticity seems to require deep self-recognition and a lack of hypocrisy to begin with, promising deep honesty and open connection with others. To be authentic is to be comfortable with vulnerability. To be authentic is to be consistent over time.
But is it really true that is going on when we experience authenticity? While one might assume that we are feeling most authentic when our enduring personality characteristics are aligned with our actions, research suggests that the experience of authenticity may simply be about feeling good, regardless of other factors. In psychological terms, do we feel authentic when our current behavior (changing “states” of personality) matches with our long-term, stable set of personality “traits”? What we think is authentic can, in important ways, have little to do with what actually is authentic.
Does "acting consistently = feeling authentic"?
To investigate whether feeling authentic comes from the alignment of personality with ongoing behavior, researchers Cooper, Sherman, Rauthmann, Serfass, and Brown (2018) conducted a study to compare the “acting consistently = feeling authentic” hypothesis with the “feeling good = feeling authentic” hypothesis. They asked these three questions:
- To what extent does trait-state consistency predict experienced authenticity? We might expect that when our long-term personality characteristics match our day-to-day experience of ourselves as we go about our lives, we will experience greater authenticity. But prior research hasn't shown that clearly. And work on authenticity has typically relied on the participants' self-reported feelings of authenticity, without looking more deeply into whether feeling authentic fits with self-consistent behavior.
- To what extent do positive feelings predict experienced authenticity? Prior research, according to Cooper and colleagues, suggests that when people feel authentic, it may really be an indication that they are feeling positive about what's happening and good about themselves. Research to date has not systematically explored this question.
- To what extent do situational characteristics predict trait-state consistency and experienced authenticity? Finally, study authors note, it may be that environmental factors determine whether one feels authentic or not, in addition to any personality-behavior interactions. What's going on on any given day may influence the experience of authenticity.
As part of a larger study, researchers recruited over 200 participants from an American university population to analyze relationships among short- and long-term personality characteristics, the experience of authenticity, and situational factors. Each participant reported eight times per day on various measures of interest after completing a baseline set of measures in the laboratory, reporting on their experience of themselves and the situations they were in when they received a prompt as they went about their day-to-day lives. Participants reported on their experiences using the following tools:
- Personality traits were assessed at the beginning of the study using the HEXACO-60, which asks participants to rate themselves on enduring qualities (“global trait dimensions”) including honesty-humility, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. This scale covers the Big 5 of openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, extraversion and conscientiousness, along with a few other aspects of personality.
- Situational factors were evaluated using the S8-I, which asks about the “Situational Eight DIAMONDS,” an inventory of factors which define important activities to varying degrees, including: 1) Duty: Work has to be done; 2) Intellect: Deep thinking is required; 3) Adversity: Someone is being threatened, blamed, or criticized; 4) Mating: Potential romantic partners are present; 5) Positivity: Situation is enjoyable; 6) Negativity: Situation includes negative feelings; 7) Deception: Someone is being deceived; and 8) Sociality: Social interaction is possible or required.
- Personality states during specific situations were assessed using the same HEXACO personality items noted above, with each of the items asked about on a polarized scale — for example, for emotionality ranging from “nervous, emotional” to “calm, unemotional.”
- For experienced authenticity, participants responded on a scale from “Authentic (true to myself)” to “Inauthentic (not true to myself)” about how they felt at each report.
- Similarly, for positive feelings, participants responded to items about happiness (“happy, positive” to “sad, negative”) and self-esteem (“feeling good about myself” to “feeling bad about myself”).
What is going on when we feel authentic?
With regard to the main study questions, first, researchers found that state-trait consistency didn’t have very much to do with experienced authenticity. Increases in state-trait consistency didn’t move the needle much on the authenticity meter. Even though on one hand you might expect that kind of personality consistency to connect with authenticity, on the other hand many of us may not stop to ponder whether our activities and decisions are consistent with who we are, what we want, or why we do what we do. Being aware of where the experience of authenticity comes from is of critical importance for accurate self-appraisal.
Second, they found that over the course of the day, positive feelings, good self-esteem, and happiness were the dominant predictors of participants reporting experiencing authenticity. As various indicators of happiness, self-esteem, positive emotion, absence of negative emotion, and so on went up, there were sizable jumps in the reported experience of authenticity. This was even true after controlling for situational factors and other variables. Feeling authentic is associated with feeling good.
Authenticity is hedonic. This feel-good aspect of being real has its roots in social forces, as a large component of feeling good in day-to-day interactions for study participants (and people in general) typically involves doing well with others, working well together, and enjoying communal activity. This facilitates teamwork and group cohesion, though taken too far leads to social conformity. Is it more authentic to express your personality with fidelity from situation to situation at the potential expense of social function, or is it more authentic to pursue higher-order goals of getting along with others and being more successful, but perhaps risking being true to oneself, and even going down a wrong path?
Finally, how do personality fluctuations — states — correlate with experienced authenticity? Higher emotional variability, a neurotic personality characteristic, was associated with lower experienced authenticity, both for the individual over time, as well as across the group. This finding resonates with the familiar neurotic concern that one cannot be oneself — that one is an imposter, perhaps, or at least going through the motions or faking it to some extent — even deceiving oneself and others. Having trouble dealing with emotions interferes with setting and reaching goals, making it harder to be happy and experience confidence in oneself, and as this research suggests, preventing one from feeling authentic by blocking feeling good.
What stable personality factors were related to increased authentic experience? Honesty/humility, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness had significant positive correlations with experienced authenticity. These factors fit the theory, because they are all factors which either are prosocial, lubricating the social gears, allow for greater industry and capacity for effective work, or allow for a greater range of creative thinking — all of which contribute to greater happiness and self-esteem. In addition, as the study authors point out, other aspects of personality, such as morality, relate to authenticity. In this study, honesty/humility reflects the positive correlate of moral behavior with authenticity. Happiness, however, still had a much greater statistical weight than any personality factors.
This doesn’t mean personality isn’t important, though — since life is at times nonlinear, a tiny difference at the right moment can alter the course of our lives, and small effects over time can snowball. That moment of being open to a new idea or meeting someone who opens doors — or the reputation effect of getting along well with others over time and in different circumstances — are crucial. But if these actions don’t lead to happiness and self-esteem, they are less likely to make you feel especially authentic. Being able to pivot, adapting one’s personality as needed without compromising oneself, makes sense.
There were other notable findings. Situational factors were significant, but also played a relatively small role. Which factors made the most difference? The experience of authenticity was diminished in situations involving adversity, negativity, or deception, and increased in situations characterized by positivity. Future research is required to see how much situational factors were important independent of the effect on happiness, and how objective measures of personality relate to authenticity, among other things.
What does authenticity have to do with personal development?
This researchers highlights how important, and yet how poorly understood, authenticity is. “Not being authentic” can feel like a major insult, especially in our culture. Being fake isn’t good. Or it is good, but you have to do fake really well, so it feels authentic. We seem to hunger for authenticity, while immersion in social media, politics, the workplace, and entertainment changes our perceptions. Does it make it harder to deal with real people, in real situations? If being authentic doesn’t mean to behave consistently with one’s own personality, what does it mean?
If happiness truly is what authenticity is about, we have a lot to ponder. It's not simple. On the one hand, it seems like a betrayal of authenticity, a cheapening. We take on different characteristics from situation to situation in order to feel happy and confident, and this creates an illusion of authenticity, when in reality we are acting untrue to ourselves. On the other hand, we may be expressing ourselves flexibly and adaptively, changing our behaviors to meet the need of the day, and especially for socially determined reasons, in the service of goals we hold dear. Sacrificing long-term goals for short-term personality consistency might appear more authentic, and to do otherwise against one’s values, but can be self-defeating.
Which way we take it also depends on our personal beliefs and proclivities. My inauthenticity is your authenticity, and visa-versa. Looking at the how people decide who is authentic and who is not, and what happens when we cannot agree, would help us to understand how social determinants play a role. Are we who we are in our own eyes, or are we who we are depending on how others see us?
During periods of relative contentment, happiness and authenticity ought to track together. During times when change is needed or taking place, what feels authentic may be more anxiety-provoking and associated with negative emotions, depending on how we approach it. In contrast, what is needed to be happy and confident in oneself may feel inauthentic, a betrayal even of oneself.
Because authenticity has such a romanticized and idealized glow around it, it is a potential hot-button topic. It’s at the heart of identity, but we also are prone to deceiving ourselves and others, often adaptively. Questioning another person’s authenticity is potentially risky, as it can be taken as an attack on their integrity, which in our culture is particularly offensive, perhaps because of how fragile that authenticity actually sometimes is. How are we to know if it is real authenticity, enduring, or just a series of dopamine-hits with us riding a hedonic wave of positivity without real meaning?
Authenticity probably comes in different flavors, perhaps a more ephemeral form, and then perhaps (borrowing from attachment theory) something like “earned authenticity” rooted in a deeper sense of pleasure and satisfaction coming from long-term engagement. There is good reason to look for our more primal, animalistic needs for status, and day-to-day enjoyment and confidence as good old mammals in a social hierarchy, to synergize with enduring and persistent efforts to fully discover oneself and live authentically, rather than setting them against one another.
Cooper AB, Sherman RA, Rauthmann JF, Serfass DG, Brown NA. Feeling good and authentic: Experienced authenticity in daily life is predicted by positive feelings and situation characteristics, not trait state consistency. Journal of Research in Personality. 77 (2018), 57-69.